Breaking Bad just finished the best final season of any classic TV drama ever. You saw it, you get it, you don't need to be told it again. But where does season 5 of Breaking Bad when put against every season of classic TV dramas?
We took 16 combined seasons of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Wire and ranked them first to first. There are plenty of other shows* who could throw their hat into the "Best TV Drama Ever" running but for succinctness' sake, we'll stick to the "Big 3." The two-part season 6 of The Sopranos and season 5 of Breaking Bad will each be counted as one season. This article contains spoilers, obviously.
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* -- Mad Men is the other obvious entrant on the list but it hasn't finished its series yet. Deadwood and The Shield could make a fairly legitimate claim as well. After that you're either looking at shows still running like Game of Thrones or shows that predate the cable TV Renaissance Era like Hill Street Blues or Twin Peaks. I, of course, would put Lost on the list. But I am also insane.
16. Breaking Bad Season 1
Let’s start off with the obvious: though Breaking Bad, season 1 is the “worst” season on this list. It’s still better than at least 90% of TV that’s ever existed. And there is a lot to love in season 1 including the first time Walt and Jesse cook, the excellent departure of Krazy-8 and even Walt’s “that’s not meth” moment but at 7 episodes due to the writer’s strike, season 1 isn’t complete enough to compete with any other season on this list.
15. The Wire Season 5
The Wire gets the dubious distinction of having the lowest ranking final season and it’s not even close. The Wire, along with The Sopranos (and even Lost) was one of the first TV series to actually get a benefit of ending on its own terms. And the ending, itself, with an alive Jimmy McNulty’s wake and a touching final Baltimore montage is pretty solid. But the season, itself is…not.
14. The Wire Season 2
Season 2 of The Wire is oft remembered pretty poorly due to the, at the time, unexpected shift to an entirely new storyline. This is not completely fair as not only is the “docks” storyline pretty cool but there is a lot more of Stringer and Omar and McNulty than you may remember.
13. The Sopranos Season 2
The Sopranos was such a balanced, excellent show that season 2, its worst season, contains perhaps its best season finale. In “Funhouse” David Chase presents his best argument that lengthy, at times, bizarre dream sequences can only enhance what’s happening in reality as Tony’s food poisoning somehow connects the dots in his brain to Big Pussy being a rat. Season 2 is only the “worst” Sopranos season because the Richie Aprile storyline that dominated so much of the season had far less substance than any other season’s “antagonist” storyline.
12. Breaking Bad Season 3
This should give you an idea of just how good Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos are. Season 3 of Breaking Bad features: Walt brazenly moving back into his own home, Skylar’s “I f**ked Ted,” Hank beating Jesse near to death, Hank being attacked by the “twins” and nearly killed, the much-talked about “Fly” episode, Mike’s “half-measures” speech to Walt, Mike’s clever assassination of Gus’ enemies, Mike’s everything. And it’s still somehow in the bottom 5. The only reason is that Vince Gilligan and the writers opted to improvise season 3 after a tightly plotted out season 2. It was the right approach for the show in later seasons but in season 3 it leads to some awkward pacing.
11. The Sopranos Season 5
In many ways season 5 of The Sopranos feels just like part of the massive sixth and final season. Tensions are just beginning to rise across the Hudson amongst the New York crew. Tony seems more lost than ever with the season premiere episodes title “The Two Tonys” referring to more than just Tony’s cousin Tony Blundetto. It’s the “everyone gives up hope” season of The Sopranos, which for as much of a drag as it sounds is actually quite brilliant.
10. Breaking Bad Season 2
Season 2 of Breaking Bad is so meticulously planned out that four episode titles of the season actually spoil the final result of Walt’s selfishness throughout the year: “737,” Down,” “Over,” “ABQ.” Season 2 was the first season of Breaking Bad to poke holes in the “it’s all for my family” defense. Sure, it’s a valid enough excuse at the beginning but once the cancer goes away how can Walt continue to justify his actions? It’s a phenomenal season of the show overall but a particularly eye-opening and excellent one for its two leads: Jesse and Walt.
9. The Sopranos Season 3
In hindsight all Sopranos seasons have a half-remembered dream-like quality. Usually the only thing that defines each season as its own distinct unit is a plot involving some sort of antagonist for Tony. Season 3 begins that way, setting up Joe Pantoliano’s Ralph Cifaretto, but then wisely sets him aside for another season so that stories like Christopher and Paulie in the Pine Barrens and the tragedy of Jackie Aprile Jr. can take center stage.
8. The Wire Season 1
Season 1 of The Wire is far removed from the sprawling monolith of urban institutional decay that the show would eventually become. It is essentially just the "cops and robbers" show that HBO so feared they were getting. Thankfully it's one of the best "cops and robbers" shows to ever air. Season one slowly and deliberately establishes David Simon's "visual novel" feel and tells one of television's most complete and satisfying stories ever. If The Wire had been canceled after season 1 and we didn't know what we would be missing with future seasons, it still may have found its way onto any best TV show ever lists.
7. The Sopranos Season 1
If TV as has its own version of Citizen Kane – a moment that establishes its medium as a legitimate art form, then it’s season 1 of The Sopranos. At this point we’re used to anti-heroes being beamed into our homes but back in 1999 The Sopranos was as transcendent as NEARLY 90-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT Charles Kane whispering “rosebud.” Season 1 is also less experimental and more cinematic that later seasons, telling one of the series’ most complete and familial stories.
6. The Sopranos Season 6
If we were counting season 6 as two entities: the ponderous and bloated first half and the emotional, climatic second half, The Sopranos final season may have ended up in the top three. But as things stand, The Sopranos turned in an outstanding final season for TV’s first masterpiece. Complain about the last ten minutes if you must (though really…you mustn’t) but the last nine or so Sopranos episodes are action-packed with death, dismemberment and Paulie Walnut’s eyebrows.
5. The Sopranos Season 4
Season 4 of The Sopranos is the show’s most deliberately anti-climactic season…it’s also its best. The growing threat of Ralph Cifaretto is neutralized (shockingly and spectacularly) before the season is half over and Chase and his writers move their gaze to the dissolution of Tony and Carmela’s manage, one of TV’s most realistic and heartbreaking unions. Tony Soprano has killed dozens of people and committed hundreds of crimes throughout the show’s run but no moment is more upsetting than his punching a whole clear through a wall of the Soprano’s house (and House), right above a shrieking Carmela.
4. Breaking Bad Season 4
This isn’t a season of television. It’s a live grenade that you watch tick away with a noose around your neck. Never on any TV screen has tension mounted and mounted and mounted until it exploded spectacularly than in season 4 of Breaking Bad…well until season 5 of Breaking Bad that is.
3. The Wire Season 3
The Wire is not only one of the best shows of all time but the best constructed show of all time. Five 12-13 episode seasons is the perfect length for any series and The Wire is able to do something incredibly inventive within those five seasons. The Wire is essentially two trilogies rolled into one show. The first trilogy is the Barksdale/Bell story, which runs seasons 1 to 3. And the second is the Stanfield story, which runs season 3 to 5. This makes season 3 of The Wire both the beginning of one story and the end of the other. It never feels over-crowded and is somehow both a flawless ending and beginning.
2. Breaking Bad Season 5
So here it is. Not only is the final season of Breaking Bad one of the best endings ever, it’s at least the second best season of the three shows profiled. The story of Walter White is an uncomplicated one. Man is forced into extreme circumstances, man excels in circumstances, man loses himself, man loses everything else.
It’s a Greek tragedy and every Greek tragedy features the “fall.” But even Euripides if he were able to watch season 5 of Breaking Bad would probably say “Shit, man, I didn’t know you could have a protagonist fall this hard.” Kudos to Vince Gilligan for providing viewers with the ending we all intuitively know we should get but could have never reasonably expected to be this good.
1. The Wire Season 4
This is the best season of television of all time. It may be the best complete dramatic thought since Shakespeare’s time. And I have a hard time believing anything can top it in my lifetime. The Wire is an incredible achievement but if it has any shortcomings it might be that it’s too incredible. David Simon constructed a show so vast and so perfect that at times it can feel sterile and like it’s missing a human element. After all, the show is largely about how institutions do their best to strip away people’s humanity.
But season 4 introduces us to four characters, four young characters who are at very early stages of resisting or giving into “the game.” It’s a brilliant representation of another broken cog in a broken city per The Wire’s usual, but it’s also emotional and devastating and beautiful. It’s perfect.